Their convoy headed south out of the city through soft hills to the open plains, edged by forest and cliff, that would be their race course.
Behind them, the spires of the city nestled in the ancient rock walls of the extinct volcano.
The three friends fit comfortably into Jayce’s street cruiser. Malachi chatted easily with Jayce about their respective lives. Tila had refused to allow Ellie to sit up front next to Jayce, so she was relegated to staring at the back of his ear and wishing she could swap places with Malachi, and that Tila was in a different vehicle altogether.
Tila was uncharacteristically nervous, both for her friend and for their situation. For one, they were surrounded by excitable people that Jayce called friends, but she didn’t know them, trust them or have any reason to do either.
For another, everything about this race was too new, too sudden. The course was unknown. The racers – skimmers, Jayce had called them – were unfamiliar, and word of the bet Ellie had made had quickly spread.
‘Ellie, we shouldn’t do this.’
‘Why not? It will be fun. We’ll make friends and then you’ll get the meeting you want.’
‘If you win.’
‘Could you at least look at me, Ellie?’
Ellie tuned out the views of the countryside and Jayce’s ear and looked at Tila. ‘I said, of course I’ll win.’
‘Ellie, we don’t know anything about this place, or the course. Even the racers.’
‘Hey, no problem,’ said Jayce, over his shoulder. ‘I’ll be able to show her around, make sure she’s comfortable with everything.’
‘I’m sure,’ said Tila.
‘And we’ll be able to get some practice laps in, no worries.’
‘I don’t want her to kill herself, Jayce.’
‘Relax. She’ll be safe enough. You know how to relax, right?’
‘Tila doesn’t like to relax,’ said Ellie.
‘I do, just not here and not now.’
‘I can help with that, you know,’ said Jayce.
‘Oh?’ said Tila.
‘This’ll be good,’ Malachi said to Ellie, who grinned in reply.
‘Yeah. After this is over, and you’ve had your meeting or whatever with Conway, why don’t you call come back to my place for dinner? I’ll invite some friends. It’ll be fun. Relaxing. Trust me.’
‘But I don’t,’ Tila said.
Jayce grinned and winked at Tila in the mirror. ‘You will.’
They pulled off the highway onto smaller roads and then turned from these on to open fields. Jayce drove an anti-grav cruiser, so they felt no difference as the terrain beneath them changed, but his friends in wheeled vehicles quickly fell behind.
Tila watched the activity all around them as they drive past crowds of people and rows of cruisers. This was a bigger event than she had thought. Ellie’s Juggernaut races were small events. They attracted only a handful of competitors, and probably no more than a hundred spectators each time. Here, they had already passed a hundred cruisers at least, neatly parked in rows on the hillside. Downhill, where the slope was almost flat, vehicles Tila didn’t recognise – the skimmers, she supposed – were spread out. Each one was the centre of a pool of activity.
Somewhere in the distance, colours blurred across the open ground.
This was a rich kid’s playground, and they didn’t belong here at all.
Jayce pulled his cruiser into a space, jumped out and clapped. ‘This is gonna be a great day!’
Tila stepped out slowly, already regretting the decisions which had brought them here.
‘Where’s your racer? I mean skimmer,’ said Ellie.
‘Down in the pits. I had one of the staff bring it here earlier.’
‘You have staff?’ said Malachi.
‘No,’ said Tila.
‘Tila, you coming?’ Malachi called.
‘In a minute. I’m going to look around, okay?’
‘Okay. We’ll be down there.’ He waved vaguely in the direction they were walking.
Tila turned in the opposite direction and walked up the hill a few paces for a better look.
The land before them was broad and open and fell away to the south in ripples of green hills. To the west, the grassland gave way to scrub which in turn gave way to a forest. Tila didn’t know much about trees, and it had been a long time since he had been near one, but these were bigger than any tree she remembered.
To the east was the grey line of the highway on which they had travelled, and beyond that, near the horizon, was the sea.
And then there was the crowd.
Hundreds of people, most of them around her age, sat on the grassy slopes to the west. From here they commanded a view of the start and finish of all the courses and the area reserved for race prep. Tiny camera drones hovered in the sky above them, darting over the racers as they made last-minute adjustments to their skimmers, or drifting over the starting line.
Somewhere down there was Blake, Ellie’s new target. As Jayce had explained to them on the way here, Blake had the experience, money and ruthlessness to win every time. Maybe that was why Jayce had also told them that word of Ellie’s challenge had quickly spread, and that most of the spectators were secretly hoping Ellie would win.
But that’s hardly reassuring. I can afford to lose the staff, but I can’t lose Ellie. If racing against this Blake was as dangerous as people said, it was too great a risk.
And to top off all of this, Tila still didn’t trust Jayce. Whatever his real agenda might be it didn’t appear to preclude him helping them. Tila wasn’t used to someone being this keen to offer help. It worried her. This whole situation worried her. So far today, nothing had gone to plan.
Tila scanned the pit area for her friends and soon picked out Ellie’s fair hair and Malachi’s dark hair among the figures clustered around Jayce’s racer. It looked like they were arguing over something. At least that was familiar. They always disagreed on something before a race, usually because Ellie wanted Malachi to do something impossible, while he insisted on only delivering the improbable.
Tila half-smiled at this thought, but still sided with Malachi on this issue. He never met a rule he wanted to break. Why should the rules of physics be any different?
Tila started back to the pits when the crowd began to roar. A new race began, and camera drones zipped forward to follow the action as across the hillside spectators stood for a better view. The engine noises rolled up the hill and drowned out the crowds. Their sounds fell in pitch and volume as distance and doppler shift combined.
By the time she reached the pit, Malachi had cracked open the maintenance hatches on Jayce’s skimmer and began his assessment of the vehicle’s capabilities. Ellie was wiggling into the cockpit and taking in her surroundings with a look of intense concentration.
Tila banged on window to get Ellie’s attention and made her jump. Ellie’s hand leapt to her heart.
‘Is it like your racer?’ Tila asked.
Ellie lowered her hand and took in the whole cockpit with a sweep of her hand. ‘This has a lot more controls. I thought it would be simpler than a spaceship.’
‘If you’re worried…’
‘I’m not worried. Jayce said not to worry about most of them anyway.’
‘Oh, well, if Jayce said…’
‘I heard that. Stop being mean to him.’
‘To the boy we hardly know?’
Ellie ignored her and leaned out of the other side of the cockpit. This meant she had to turn her back on Tila, which at this moment Ellie considered a bonus.
‘Well?’ she said to Malachi.
Malachi dropped the hatch cover back into place and scratched his neck.
‘Hmmm’ he said.
‘Hmmm? What’s ‘hmmm’?’
‘It’s not great,’ said Malachi.
‘Not great? Not great?!’ said Jayce. He proudly rapped his knuckles on the engine housing. ‘This baby cost a fortune. It’s the best money can buy!’
‘How can I put this, Jayce?’ said Malachi. ‘It’s… not.’ He felt bad for Jayce. He seemed like a nice guy but he was obviously clueless about machines. Malachi explained and watched Jayce’s face fall. ‘This engine model was phased out two generations ago. The AG impellers are showing signs of metal fatigue, and if the air intakes are in the same poor condition as half the other components then you probably have a risk of overheating too. Have you had this thing serviced? Properly?’
‘It’s less than a year old!’
‘How much did you pay for it?’ asked Malachi. Hopefully not a lot, he thought to himself. Maybe Jayce just thinks this was expensive.
Jayce told him.
‘Oh,’ said Malachi. It turned out it was expensive.
‘Looks like money can’t buy you wisdom,’ said Tila, unhelpfully.
Ellie took pity on Jayce, only partially to annoy Tila, she told herself.
‘But it can still fly and race?’ she asked.
Malachi considered the question.
‘It can fly, but I don’t know if it can win. Sorry, Ellie.’
‘Malachi, pilots win races, not machines.’
‘Oh, brother,’ said Tila. ‘Ellie, you can’t win a race on confidence alone,’ she chided. ‘You have to be able to back it up with something.’
‘I do have something. I have Malachi. He can get this skimmer fixed and ready in time. Right, Mal?’
‘Oh, sure. Right. No problem,’ said Malachi. ‘With what?’
‘What about that?’ said Tila. She pointed up the hill at the cruiser they arrived in.
‘But that’s not a racer. It doesn’t have any high-performance parts,’ said Jayce.
‘That’s okay, neither does this,’ said Malachi. ‘Let me look at it. Do you have the manual for your cruiser?’
Jayce wordlessly called up the information on his datapad and handed it over. Malachi tapped some controls on the display and the view zoomed in on an exploded diagram of engine parts.
Jayce tilted his head to see what Malachi was looking at.
‘What are you going to do?’ he said.
‘I think we can swap some things around before the race starts.’
‘Things to help me win?’ asked Ellie.
‘Maybe,’ said Malachi. ‘But I’ll settle for things that stop you blowing up. I’ll be right back.’
‘As long as I win.’